Johnny Siegal, 97

There’s macro NFL history — George Halas, television, expansion, The Big Stuff — and then there’s micro NFL history . . . as personified by guys like Johnny Siegal. Siegal, a two-way end from 1939 to ’43, was the oldest living former Chicago Bear when died earlier this week at 97. That made him older than the league, and how many ex-players fall into that category anymore?

Though he was part of three title teams, Siegal had, by any other measure, a modest pro career. He was mostly a backup behind George Wilson, who later coached the Lions to a championship, and in five seasons had 31 receptions, six of which went for touchdowns. His obituary in the Chicago Sun-Times was downright perfunctory.

But Siegal had another role with the Bears — involving Hall of Fame quarterback Sid Luckman — that probably left a bigger mark on pro football. Why don’t I tell you about it?

In 1939, Johnny’s first season, Halas and his assistants were trying to reinvent the wheel. That is, they were developing the first modern offense: the T formation with man-in-motion. But they desperately needed a quarterback to run it, one who could really throw. With this in mind, Papa Bear traded end Eggs Manske for Pittsburgh’s first-round choice in the ’39 draft, and used the pick to select Luckman, the Columbia star.

But there was no guarantee in those days that a college player would move on to pro ball. It just wasn’t that glamorous a profession – or the greatest paying necessarily. Luckman’s first inclination was to go into the family trucking business, which had been suffering because of unusual circumstances: his father, who had mob ties, had been hauled off to prison for murder.

El Sid

El Sid

After the draft, Sid said, “I discussed the possibilities of professional football offers with [Columbia coach Lou] Little several times, and he advised me against it. I don’t know exactly what Mr. Little has in mind for me, but if he says it’s good that’s good enough for me. It wouldn’t have made any difference if the Giants or [Brooklyn] Dodgers had drafted me. I still would turn down any offer to play professional football.”

But Halas was a persistent man, and the following July, just before camp opened, he talked Luckman into signing for $5,000. The decision came as a surprise even to Sid’s family, who were kept out of the loop until the deal was finalized.

Hoping to ease Luckman’s transition, Halas made a little-noticed trade three weeks later. He sent guard Gust Zarnas to Brooklyn for its 17th-round pick in the  ’39 draft. The 17th-rounder was Siegal, who just so happened to be Sid’s favorite receiver at Columbia.

Halas knew the pressure his young quarterback would be under. Luckman would be joining a veteran team, one of the most successful franchises in sports, and – to complicate matters further – would have to make the difficult switch from single-wing tailback to T-formation QB. George just wanted to make Sid more comfortable, give him somebody familiar to throw to and, just as importantly, to talk to. Veterans in that era could be merciless on rookies, especially rookies who were making more money than they were.

How much Siegal helped Luckman survive the bumps and potholes can be debated, of course. What’s clear, though, is that — at the beginning, at least — Sid had few friends on the roster. Indeed, when he struggled at his new position, some vets went to Halas and told him he should trade the kid to his hometown Dodgers, who wanted him as a drawing card and could play him at tailback in coach Potsy Clark’s single wing.

Luckman was so overwhelmed those first few months that Halas lined him up at running back — just to get him on the field. Bears back Joe Maniaci told me that during camp, “I went over to Sid and told him, ‘Sid, I don’t know. I don’t think you’re going to hang around. It doesn’t look too good. There’s too many good runners and stuff.’ And he got mad at me, and we broke up as roommates.”

(Luckman and Maniaci, a Fordham grad, had been lifeguards together at Manhattan Beach. Joe had even gone to his wedding earlier that summer.)

Luckman (in my 1995 interview with him): “Dan Topping owned the Dodgers at that time — he eventually owned the New York Yankees — and he offered Halas $50,000 for me. But Halas absolutely refused to do it. The players [who tried to talk George into it] probably figured he could use that money to give them all a raise.

“At that point Halas had me at left halfback, because obviously I didn’t know anything about the T formation. But he brought in a coach named Carl Brumbaugh [one of the Bears’ early T quarterbacks], and every day after practice Carl and I would get together with one of the centers and work on the taking the snap and setting up on pass plays. It was very hard for me to get used to doing that. Over time, though, I won the respect of the players. They knew how hard I was working. They knew I was studying the plays every night. I’d take the playbook home and review everybody’s position.”

10-14-39 Luckman head in Eagle

At late as Week 6, there was still speculation Luckman might get shipped to the Dodgers. On Tuesday of that week came this report in the Brooklyn Eagle: “Topping hasn’t abandoned his quest of luring Sid Luckman away from the Chicago Bears. He intends to wait until Sunday for an answer from the Bears, believing that after the Giants-Bears clash on Sunday, George Halas, Chicago boss, may part with the Chicago star.”

As it turned out, that Giants-Bears clash at the Polo Grounds was Luckman’s coming-out party as a T-formation quarterback. When Chicago fell behind 16-0, Halas put him at QB — and the rest is history. Sid led the Bears to two touchdowns in the final seven minutes, tossing a 68-yard scoring pass to helmetless end Dick Plasman and setting up another TD with completions of 53 and 30 yards. This was no ordinary Giants team, either. It finished 9-1-1 and went to the title game.

Afterward, Halas said, “Not a chance in a million of us letting Sid go. He’s a great player, and he fits in very well with our scheme of things. Besides, he seems to like the city of Chicago very much.”

To which the Eagle added: “Whether Halas was just as intent on keeping Luckman before yesterday’s game with the Giant[s] is something to conjure with. Everyone in football circles knew that Dan Topping, Dodger[s] owner, wanted Sid and wanted him badly. They knew that Dan had the bait out for him and that Halas had taken a little nibble.”

Luckman again: “I was probably more emotional and stressful in that particular game than in any other game I’d ever been in. My adrenal glands were really working. Of course, it was my first opportunity to play quarterback, and my family was there. [Herbert] Hawkes, the dean of Columbia, was there. Lou Little, the [Columbia] players and the coaching staff were there. And Paul Sullivan, my high school coach, was there. The [P.A.] announcer who announced I was coming into the game was a fella named Lou Wilson, who had become sort of a real good friend of mine. He’d come over to the house [in Brooklyn] to visit, and we’d go out to dinner once in a while.

“Anyway, I went in, and one of the halfbacks [Bob MacLeod] told me he could get behind the defender. I would have taken anybody’s play, I was so . . . in another world, you know? So I called his play – the stop and go – and sent him in motion, and he faked out the Giants[s] defender. I was so nervous, though, that I threw the pass end-over-end, and the Giants fella was waiting to intercept it. But [MacLeod] came in from behind and took the ball [away from him]. It was probably the worst . . . pass in the history of sports.”

For Sid Luckman, that’s where it all began. That was his first shaky step on the road to Canton. Two Sundays later he flipped a touchdown pass in the Bears’ 30-27 win over the Packers — who would go on to win the championship — and the next season he quarterbacked Chicago to the title . . . in 73-0 fashion. It was the first of four rings for Luckman in a seven-year stretch.

And it might never have happened if Halas, not always the most patient guy, hadn’t turned down a pile of money for him — in the midst of the Depression, no less. Would Luckman have had the kind of career with the Dodgers that he did with the star-studded Bears? Not likely. He also wouldn’t have transitioned to the T formation, which was made for him, so soon, and he might not have lasted 12 seasons. Tailback, let’s not forget, was a much more physically demanding position than quarterback. You were expected to be a running threat (and occasionally to block).

No, Chicago was the better place for Luckman — the ideal place, really — and Siegal’s presence was a small part of that. Somehow, Johnny found time to go to Northwestern Dental School in his off hours (as did fullback Bill Osmanski). That was Halas for you. He liked players who could win with their minds as well as their muscles.

(When Siegal went into the military during World War II, Hugh Fullerton Jr. of The Associated Press ran this funny item in his column: “Lieut. [jg] Johnny Siegal, former Columbia and Bears end, has left the Bainbridge [Md.] Naval Training Station to take up his new duties as dentist at Annapolis. Maybe Johnny isn’t going to help Navy put in the ‘T,’ but he’ll sure put in the teeth.”)

During the ’42 season, when the Bears came to Brooklyn, Luckman and Siegal spent their Saturday afternoon watching their alma mater beat Colgate. The star of the game was Columbia’s latest tailback sensation, Paul Governali, who hit 17 of 25 passes and threw for three touchdowns.

“He was better than Luckman ever was,” Little told the attending scribes, “and I never thought that would be possible to see. Of course, you must remember that Sid worked wonders with Paul during the summer and showed him how to move and throw. He ‘made’ Governali. Now Paul shuffles and cocks his arm just as Sid does. In fact, I think they are identical passers, or as close as any performers can be.”

While the Baker Field crowd cheered one of Governali’s TD tosses, Siegal leaned over to Luckman. “See?” he said, as only a longtime teammate can. “I told you Governali is a better passer than you are, and now I am sure of it.”

Sources: Brooklyn Eagle archives, pro-football-reference.com.

Memorial Day

Seventy summers ago, NFL players began to filter back to the league after getting discharged from the military. The lucky ones, at least. Some, who’d lost a sizable chunk of their careers to

Jack Sanders

Jack Sanders

World War II, walked away from football with barely a backward glance. Others, like Chicago Cardinals back Mario “Motts” Tonelli — a survivor of the Bataan Death March and a captive of the Japanese for nearly four years — simply weren’t up to the rigors of the game anymore.

Then there was Steelers guard Jack Sanders. The war had taken a heavy toll on him, too. While serving with the Marines on Iwo Jima, he’d lost his left hand and wrist in an explosion. He’d also suffered shrapnel wounds and significant hearing loss, and one of his legs was broken in three places.

That should have been it for Sanders as a pro football player. But then he saw Pete Gray, baseball’s one-armed wonder, scurrying around Philadelphia’s Shibe Park for the St. Louis Browns, and told himself, “If he can do it, so can I.”

At the time, Sanders was being treated at the Naval Hospital in Philly, where a brace and pad were made for his arm. As a courtesy, the Steelers loaned him to the Eagles so he could try to keep playing while receiving therapy. (Actually, “try” might not be the best choice of words here. If at all possible, coach Greasy Neale was going to find a place for him on the roster. It was just the way things were in 1945.)

Starting left guard Jack Sanders.

Starting left guard Jack Sanders.

Sanders returned to the NFL in a preseason charity game against the defending champion Packers. The crowd topped 90,000 and included tens of thousands of servicemen, many of whom had been wounded or were amputees themselves. The Philadelphia Inquirer described the scene thusly:

The thunderous crescendo rolled from one side of Municipal Stadium and back again as Lieutenant Jack Sanders of the Marine Corps ran onto the field to take his place in the Eagles’ starting lineup. . . . Every eye was focused on the courageous athlete, who lost part of his left arm at Iwo Jima. The sincere wishes of every man, woman and child in the huge stadium went with him as he stepped forward to make his comeback – a personal ambition for him as well as a shining example for other fighting men who have returned from the battlefronts wounded.

Sanders appeared in three games that season — his fourth in pro football — before retiring at 28 and turning to coaching. In an interview with the Corpus Christi Times in 1951, he said his arm guard, which was made of steel and cowhide and weighed five or six pounds, could double as a weapon if he felt so inclined. But he rarely did. Opponents, after all, were awfully deferential toward him.

“If I fell down on the ground,” he said, “those guys would dust me off and help me up.”Jack Sanders headJack Sanders AP story 8-18-45

Where Goodell goofed

Roger Goodell would have you believe he wants to clean up this town, rid the NFL of the felons and the scalawags, the gratuitous violence and the Culture of Cheating. And maybe, beneath that bureaucratic exterior, the heart of a reformer does beat. But it’s clear, with every misstep he takes, that the commissioner doesn’t have the faintest notion how to pull it off. In times of crisis he can seem overmatched, as if running on a treadmill that’s set too fast. Kind of like George Jetson when he tried to take his dog Astro for a walk:

(Think of Astro as the NFL and the cat as Any Problem That Lands on Roger’s Desk.)

Don’t get me wrong. Running a sports league, especially one as gargantuan as the NFL, is a difficult and largely thankless task — except on payday. But it doesn’t have to be quite as difficult as Goodell is making it. When, after careful consideration, you initially suspend Ray Rice for two games for punching out his future wife and then, a year later, suspend Tom Brady for twice as long because you suspect he masterminded a football-deflation scheme, you’ve basically told the world your moral compass is about as reliable as the air-pressure gauges used in the AFC title game.

And when the league announces that you’ll be the one who hears Brady’s appeal — rather than an independent arbitrator — you’re basically admitting, “No other vertebrate with a sixth-grade education would ever agree with me.”

The commissioner makes a big deal about “protecting The Shield” — as if the NFL’s Park Avenue offices are Camelot, and he sits at the head of the Round Table:

But if that’s truly his aim, the league shouldn’t have handled Deflategate the way it did. Indeed, its behavior — and the three-month media circus that followed — was the exact opposite of “protecting The Shield.”

Allow me to explain. According to the Wells Report, it wasn’t until the day before the AFC championship game that the Colts raised the issue of the Patriots using underinflated footballs. This didn’t give the NFL a ton of time to decide what to do, but it certainly gave it enough time. That the league, operating out of a hurry-up offense, Totally Screwed the Pooch showed how rudderless a ship it often is.

There were, in my mind, two ways the NFL could have gone.

1. It could have notified the Patriots about the Colts’ concerns and told them, “We plan to monitor this closely.” Then it could have dispatched additional personnel to Foxborough to see to it that no funny business occurred. The footballs for both teams could been kept under the control of a league representative — or a battalion of them — for the entire game. At the end of every quarter, if need be, the air pressure could have been rechecked.

2. The NFL could have taken all of the above precautions but not notified the Patriots beforehand. (Of course, on game day, it wouldn’t have taken the Pats long to figure out what was going on.)

Unfortunately, the league ended up choosing Door No. 3: It (a.) kept the Patriots in the dark while (b.) taking virtually none of my suggested precautions. (And it worked out just splendidly for them, didn’t it?)

What it comes down to, ultimately, is: What’s your main objective? If it’s to catch the Patriots red-handed, then obviously you don’t notify them — and let things play out however they will. But if your main goal is to make sure the game is above suspicion, that the outcome doesn’t have anything to do with the Pats having a “competitive advantage,” then you do notify them — and wait until the offseason to look into the Ball-Pressure Issue (if one exists).

By not notifying the Patriots, then failing to make certain their footballs were properly inflated in the first half, the NFL, it could be argued, acted negligently. That’s because, well, look at what happened. Despite a heads-up from the league, referee Walt Anderson lost track of the balls . . . and a nightmare scenario unfolded. You even had one of the air-pressure gauges used by the officials getting significantly higher readings than the other — which would make anyone wonder about their accuracy.

At any rate, this is the best Goodell and his Knights Templar could do on short notice, this sorry example of executive decision making?

Luckily for them, the Patriots blew out the Colts, 45-7. If the game had been close, as so many of the Pats’ postseason games have been, you would have had fans saying, rightly or wrongly, that the deflated balls might have been the difference. That’s the risk the NFL ran by not being more hands-on.

Here’s the problem, though: By approving the penalties he did, including a $1 million fine for the Patriots and the stripping of their first- and fourth-round picks in 2016, Goodell is obviously trying to send the message that this is a major offense, that ball pressure matters. But the league’s half-baked response to the Colts’ accusation — and the referee’s bungled carrying out of that response — send an entirely different message: that ball pressure doesn’t matter much at all.

And it really doesn’t. If it did, the NFL would never allow these shenanigans to go on, never leave it up to the honor system. It would be just as vigilant about the balls quarterbacks use as the ones kickers do.

You ask yourself: Are there any circumstances under which Goodell would have invalidated the outcome of the game? If the margin of victory had been a field goal instead of 38 points, and if the Patriots’ balls had measured well below specs at halftime, would the commissioner have said, when it was over, “I’m disqualifying New England from the Super Bowl and sending the Colts to represent the AFC”?

If so, then the league’s actions after being tipped off by the Colts — actions that were straight out of the Three Stooges playbook — border on malpractice.

And if not — I’m leaning in this direction — then what in the name of George Halas is all the fuss about?

(By the way, I’d be surprised if Jeffrey Kessler, Brady’s legal muscle, hasn’t also thought of this — and a bunch of other stuff. Strap yourselves in, folks. This ain’t over yet.)

Remembering Garo Yepremian

Garabed Sarko Yepremian was a grand old name. Not as melodious, perhaps, as Cassius Marcellus Clay, but resonant in its own Old World way. Alas, Garo is gone — struck down by cancer at 70 — and his death raises a question: Will pro football ever see a story like his again?

By that I mean: Will there ever be another player who plays in the first NFL game he’s ever seen — and sets a league record in his fifth?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Why don’t we start at the beginning?

Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times jokester, thought Yepremian should, by all rights, have hailed from Ypsilanti (Mich.) Garo’s background was much more unusual than that, though. Born in Cyprus, he’d fled with his family to London in the ’60s when the bullets began flying between the Turks and Greeks. (His Armenian ancestors had escaped to the Mediterranean island decades earlier, seeking refuge from Turkey’s genocidal lunacy.)

Yepremian might have spent the rest of his life in the U.K. — been an Un Known, in other words — if his older brother Krikor hadn’t come to this country to play college soccer. In the summer of 1966, Garo went to visit him in Indianapolis, and for fun they’d head to a nearby field with a football. Krikor would hold, and Garo, a weekend soccer player back home, would kick.

Little Brother got so good so quickly that Big Brother convinced him to seek a college scholarship. Indiana and Butler expressed interest, but there was a hangup: Garo didn’t have a high school diploma — another casualty of the turmoil in Cyprus. So Krikor wrote letters to several pro teams in hopes of getting him a tryout.

In Week 6 the Falcons, a first-year expansion team in need of almost everything, gave him a look — and were impressed. “He’s not a very big guy — 5-foot-8, 165 pounds — but he was knocking them [through] consistently from 55 yards,” coach Norb Hecker said afterward. Atlanta reportedly made him an offer, but he’d promised the Lions he’d work out for them before he signed with anybody. The next day he was in Detroit, leaving the coaches and players there just as slack-jawed.

According to one report, Yepremian made 19 of 20 tries from the 45-to-50 yards. In those days, that was ridiculous. Consider: NFL kickers converted a mere 55.7 percent of all field goal attempts that season. Even Wayne Walker, the Lions’ incumbent kicker, had to give him his due. “The best . . . I’ve ever seen,” he said.

And a soccer-styler to boot (if you’ll pardon the expression). In 1966, you see, “sidewinders” were still very much a novelty. There were only three in pro ball, all in the NFL — the two Gogolak brothers, Pete (Giants) and Charlie (Redskins), and Yepremian.

Traditionalists weren’t sure quite what to make of them. On one level, they were horrified that these Non-Football Players were trying to move in on the “foot” part of the game. Walker, after all, was a Pro Bowl linebacker, and other kickers, like the Browns’ Lou Groza, were former position players. The diminutive Yepremian, meanwhile, looked like he’d taken a wrong turn on the way to elf practice.

“No longer does the kicker have to be a heavy-duty performer who is part of the team,” The New York Times’ Arthur Daley lamented around that time. “He can be a man apart, and the only time he experiences rude contact is just before a roughing-the-kicker penalty.”

Then there was Yepremian’s unorthodox style, which made use of his instep rather than his toes. That took some getting used to, too. As the Oakland Tribune described it: “Garo uses only a skip and two short steps to get off his kicks. According to the laws of physics, his instep covers a greater area than the American toe kickers [enjoy] and helps boot the ball a greater distance. Also the whiplash of a sideway kick gives the leg greater speed.”

Or something like that.

Heck, these guys weren’t even Americans. Yepremian was from London . . . or Cyprus . . . or somewhere, and the Gogolaks had sneaked off to America amid the Hungarian Revolution. Indeed, it’s remarkable how the upheaval in Europe during and after World War II changed — in a huge way — the game of football. Fred Bednarski, believed to be the first college sidewinder — for Texas in 1957 — was a Polish refugee who’d spent some time in a Nazi labor camp. And Walt Doleschal, an early soccer-styler for Lafayette, was a displaced Czechoslovakian.

(That’s why, whenever somebody wonders why soccer isn’t a bigger deal in the U.S., I always say, “It is a big deal, a very big deal. It’s just been incorporated into football.”)

Once the sidewinders began infiltrating the sport, kicking became much less of a hit-or-miss proposition, especially from long distance. What was the success rate on field goals last season, 84 percent? (From 50 yards and beyond, it was 61.) Nowadays, anything inside the 40 is, in the fan’s mind, a veritable PAT. Best not miss too many of those.

Anyway, Lions coach Harry Gilmer was forward thinking enough to get Yepremian’s name on a contract before the rest of the league became aware of him. The Motor City also had something going for it that Atlanta might not have: an Armenian church Garo could go to. The newest Lion, then 22, hustled back to Indy to gather up his clothes, then rejoined the club in time to make the trip to Baltimore for the next game. Oops, almost forgot: He had to obtain a work permit before he could suit up.

At first, Yepremian just handled kickoffs; Walker did the rest of booting. Against the Colts, Garo knocked one into the end zone and the other to the 5-yard line. This, by the way, was a familiar arrangement for the Lions. In the ’50s they’d often split the job between a Short Guy (e.g. Bobby Layne) and a Long Guy (e.g. Jim Martin) — as had other teams. The ’63 Bears, in fact, won the title with Roger LeClerc (field goals) and Bob Jencks (extra points) sharing the duties.

Besides, Yepremian had enough to worry about that first week. Never mind the strange surroundings and the large, sweaty men looking askance at him, he didn’t even know how to put on his uniform. Shoulder pads were a total mystery to him, and he “had no idea whether the sweat socks went inside or outside the long stockings,” the Oakland paper said. He also had yet to receive any instruction in the fine art of tackling. If the returner comes your way, he was told, “try to get an angle — and then fall in front of him.”

Then things started happening in a hurry for Yepremian. In his second game, in San Francisco, Walker got ejected in the second quarter — one of the hazards of being an Actual Football Player — and Garo had to do it all. He didn’t exactly ace the test, making just one of four field goal tries, a 30-yarder, and going three for three on point-afters. But hey, at least he was on the scoreboard.

Three weeks later, when he got his next big chance, he was ready. Fran Tarkenton, the Vikings’ Hall of Fame quarterback, had his problems that day, throwing five interceptions, and Yepremian was the main beneficiary. The Lions offense had trouble punching the ball in, so Gilmer kept sending him in to kick field goals — six in eight attempts. That broke the NFL record of five set 15 years earlier by Rams great Bob Waterfield. (Garo’s four three-pointers in one quarter, the second, were another mark.)

Detroit’s first 18 points in a 32-31 victory came on Yepremian boots of 33, 26, 15, 20, 28 and 32 yards. Granted, there weren’t any long ones, but the sports world was amazed nonetheless — amazed that this nobody from another hemisphere, this abbreviated kicker with a quirky technique, had hijacked an NFL game.

6 FG headline

Murray thought it was hysterical that Yepremian played for Detroit, an old-fashioned team that hit hard and partied harder. To him, the Lions were an unlikely franchise to steer pro football into the future. (Frankly, Jim shuddered to think of them behind the wheel of any moving vehicle.)

“They lead the league in airport fights, lawsuits, barroom brawls,” he wrote. “The team emblem should be a swizzle stick. Or a camel. They’re the thirstiest team in the game. The water boy carries olives.

“Other teams have a rugged line of defense. The Lions have a rugged line of defendants. Others have a team trainer on the bench. The Lions have a team bail bondsman. They spend half their time going over their plays and the other half going over their constitutional rights. . . .

“All of which is why — when they signed a native of the island of Cyprus to play for them — a lot of us thought they wanted him to stomp grapes.”

You can imagine how welcoming that Detroit locker room must have been to a Cypriot kicker of Armenian extraction who spoke four languages — none of which was Football. Veterans in that era were notoriously hard on rookies, and the Lions were among the league leaders in the hazing department. In his Yepremian appreciation a few days ago, Dave Hyde of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel wrote that Garo “was hung by his jersey on a locker’s hook by [Lions defensive] tackle Alex Karras.” If so, he got off easy.

Even after Yepremian set the record, the media struggled to get his name right. It wasn’t just the “Yepremian,” either. The very next week, the Baltimore Sun referred him as “Gary” Yepremian. (Those poor linotype operators. Decades of muscle memory must have made it awfully hard to override the “y” and type G-a-r-o.)

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 11.02.53 PM

A strong finish left Yepremian with 13 field goals in 22 tries, the sixth-best percentage in the two leagues (59.1). Not bad for a guy who began the year in England, almost ended up playing college ball that fall, didn’t go to an NFL training camp, wasn’t signed until Oct. 12 and, oh yeah, was new to the game.

It was another four seasons before Garo caught on with the Dolphins and went from being a curiosity to one of the top kickers in the league — and one of the most clutch. But it all began with the Lions in ’66, when he showed the disbelieving masses he could do a lot more than crush grapes. He also could crush footballs.

Source: pro-football-reference.comYepremian 6 FG photo

 

The NFL’s not-so-benevolent despots

NFL commissioners have acted like dictators — sometimes of the Chaplin variety — pretty much from the beginning. Roger Goodell is merely following established precedent: The Despot’s Playbook. Nobody much remembers today, but the Packers had their franchise taken away after the 1921 season for using three college players in a game. As Chuck Johnson wrote in The Green Bay Packers:

Every team in the league was employing college or high school players under assumed names. Many of the top college stars of the day would play on Saturday under their own names, then play again with the pros on Sunday, using another name.

Joe Carr, first [commissioner] of the league, wanted the practice stopped, not only because he thought it reprehensible to have players using aliases, but because it was hardly endearing the fledgling professionals to the colleges, which Carr foresaw as the league’s source of talent in years to come. So Carr made an example of the Packers.

Who just happened to play in the NFL’s smallest city (and were in their first season in the league). Four years later, Red Grange would gallop hither and yon for the Bears before his college class had graduated — indeed, just five days after his last game for Illinois — but nobody tried to kick George Halas out of the league. And five years after that, Halas did the same thing with Notre Dame fullback Joe Savoldi . . . and lived to tell about it.

But the Packers were almost strangled in the cradle, thanks to the NFL’s questionable concept of justice. (Fortunately, Curly Lambeau applied for a new franchise the following summer — after the original owner bowed out — and Green Bay got a second chance to write its remarkable story.)

The only thing that’s really changed over the decades is that, occasionally, owners fight back now. Al Davis took the league to court — and won — when it sought to prevent him from moving the Raiders to Los Angeles (and back). Jerry Jones exchanged lawsuits with his lodge brothers after having the audacity to sign separate sponsorship deals for the Cowboys’ stadium.

And now we have the Patriots’ Bob Kraft and his quarterback, Tom Brady, ready to go to the mattresses over Deflategate — and the hole-ridden report used as the basis for the team’s whopping penalties. No, it ain’t 1921 anymore.

Frank Filchock

Frank Filchock

And that’s a good thing. In the old days, the commissioner would rule and his “subjects” would simply bow their heads and accept their fate. There wasn’t much recourse. When the Giants’ Frank Filchock and Merle Hapes were banned indefinitely for failing to report a bribe offer before the 1946 title game, their collective goose was cooked. They were free to play in Canada, which they did, but they were persona non grata in the NFL until the commissioner said otherwise. For Hapes, that was essentially forever. Filchock, meanwhile, was out of the league for three years (and played, ever so briefly, in just one game when he returned with the 1950 Baltimore Colts).

“They needed a scapegoat in the whole business and I was it,” he said later. “They dealt me one off the bottom of the deck. They took the easy way out.

“Twice since my suspension I wrote to [Bert] Bell and asked him for the chance to talk this over. He answered me, all right, but just wrote that if I had any new evidence to put it into writing. . . . He’s just got me hanging. [The gambler behind the fix attempt] is out [of prison], isn’t he? What about me?”

Nobody had a bigger gripe than the Pottsville Maroons. In 1925 the Maroons were the best team in the NFL. They proved this by winning 10 of their 12 games, racking up seven shutouts and beating the next-best team, the Chicago Cardinals, 21-7, on the Cards’ turf. (And believe me, a 21-7 road win the ’20s was a Serious Skunking.) But you won’t see them on the list of league champions because they made the mistake of playing an exhibition game late in the season in Philadelphia, the Frankford Yellow Jackets’ territory.

The Yellow Jackets complained, Carr suspended the Pottsville franchise — denying it the championship — and, well, it’s one of the low points in league history, if you ask me. Joe, who’s in the Hall of Fame, has a lot of defenders, but I can’t see any reasonable rationale for such a harsh penalty.

I wrote about the whole sorry episode back in 2003 for The Washington Times. Give it a look, if you’re interested, and see what you think. Maybe it’ll help answer the question: Where does Goodell get his chutzpah?

Here it is:

The NFL title that wasn’t

The Pottsville Maroons were in the news recently. That alone is news. The Maroons, northeastern Pennsylvania’s contribution to NFL history, haven’t belonged to the league since 1928, since the days of dropkicks and leather helmets. They’re less a team than a trivia question, a $1 million answer. Name the first coach of the Pottsville Maroons. Name the last. Name anybody who ever had anything to do with the Pottsville Maroons.

The Maroons did have one brief, shining moment, though. In 1925, they won the NFL championship. At least, they thought they did. But then they played an exhibition game in Philadelphia, home territory of the Frankford Yellow Jackets, and got bounced from the league before they could collect their trophy. The title ended up going to the Chicago Cardinals, who Pottsville had beaten by two touchdowns just a week before at Comiskey Park — and who had considerable baggage of their own (as we shall see).

It’s easily the most controversial ending to any NFL season, and Pottsvillians have stewed about it ever since. In 1963 they got the league to reconsider the matter, but the owners decided to let sleeping Maroons lie. At last week’s NFL meetings in Philadelphia, however, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell pleaded Pottsville’s case and convinced the league to take another look at it. The town isn’t asking that the Maroons be declared champions this time, only that they be allowed to split the title with the Cardinals.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the former lawyer, seems to share the sentiment in Pottsville that the punishment exceeded the crime. “People recognize that the passion of fans, not only in Pottsville but throughout Pennsylvania, should lead us to try to do something that’s positive recognition of those fans and the accomplishments of that Pottsville team,” he said. Would that the league had been so judicious 78 years ago.

In 1925, alas, the NFL operated much differently. Its presidency — the commissionership didn’t come until later — wasn’t even a full-time position, and scheduling was left up to the teams themselves. The Duluth Kelleys played three games that year; Frankford played 20. Some clubs, such as the Dayton Triangles, never had a home game; others, the ones that could draw a decent crowd, rarely had a road game. Everybody was scrambling to make a buck, from the Chicago Bears on down.

Late that season, the Bears caused a sensation by signing Red Grange, the celebrated “Galloping Ghost,” after his last game for the University of Illinois. They proceeded to parade him around the country, filling stadiums in Philly and New York (where a record 65,000 watched). Never before had pro football gotten so much attention.

Around the same time, Pottsville contracted to play an exhibition against a team of Notre Dame all-stars featuring the Four Horsemen. This, too, figured to be great for the pro game. Problem was, the Maroons’ field, Minersville Park, seated only about 9,000. If they were going to cash in, they needed a bigger place. So they moved the game to Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, home of the baseball A’s.

Joe Carr

Joe Carr

This didn’t sit well with the Frankford club. The Yellow Jackets protested to NFL president Joe Carr, and Carr agreed that the Pottsville game violated their territorial rights. He advised the Maroons not to play the Four Horsemen in Philly — and that there would be dire consequences if they did.

But Pottsville was a tough mining town that tended to play by its own rules. (Six of the infamous Molly Maguires, a group that wreaked vengeance against abusive mine owners, were hanged there in 1877.) There was a state law back then that prohibited sporting events on Sundays; Pottsville, typically, ignored it. As a local historian once put it, “Who was going to tell anthracite miners that they can’t have football on their one day off?”

On game days, the Maroons dressed in the fire station, then ran the two blocks to the stadium. Their field, opponents complained, was covered with more coal slag than grass. “After a rain,” Dr. Harry March wrote in Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs, “the minerals from the soil were so toxic that little wounds became infected and were dangerous.”

So, no, Pottsville wasn’t going to be dictated to by any part-time NFL president. And really, how much harm did their game figure to do to Frankford, especially if it was a one-shot deal? It’s not like the Maroons were thinking of moving to Philly. They were merely following George Halas’ lead in his handling of the Grange tour. The Bears had switched their game against Providence to Boston (which didn’t have an NFL team) and the one against the Yellow Jackets from Frankford Stadium to Shibe Park — all for the purpose of selling more tickets.

Indeed, in later years, the league would allow the Redskins to shift the championship game from Boston to New York in 1936 and the Cardinals to play the Lions in Milwaukee in ’45. Why? Because the Redskins couldn’t get anybody to come to their games in Beantown, and the Cards couldn’t find an available stadium in Chicago. So for the good of the league, exceptions were made.

Why Carr didn’t see the Pottsville-Four Horsemen game as an exception remains unclear. He was still recovering from an appendectomy when the controversy arose; maybe that had something to do with it. Or perhaps it was just the way the NFL worked in those days. Pottsville was in its first season in the league — the first of just four, as it turned out. It was probably viewed as a junior member, if not an intern.

Four Horseman game headlineConsider: Only one Pottsville player, end Charlie Berry, made the 11-man all-pro team that year, even though the Maroons were the best club in the league. (The Bears, who finished with seventh-best record, placed three on the squad, and the Cardinals and Giants two each.) Also, more than a few people think Pottsville back Tony Latone belongs in the Hall of Fame. After the Four Horsemen game, Ed Pollack of the Philadelphia Public Ledger gushed, “[Latone] hit the line like a locomotive plowing into an automobile at a grade crossing — and with the same result.” But Latone, of course, isn’t in the Hall of Fame.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, were charter members of the NFL — and are still with us today. That might explain why Carr didn’t revoke their franchise when they ran afoul of league rules late in the season. The stunt the Cardinals pulled, after all, was infinitely more scandalous than what the Maroons did. In their next-to-last game, they annihilated (59-0) an undermanned Milwaukee Badgers club that was supplemented by four players from a Chicago high school. (The kids, one of them just 16 years old, had been recruited by the Cards’ Art Folz, an alumnus of the school.)

Folz was banned from the NFL for life, and the Milwaukee owner was ordered to sell his team. Cardinals’ owner Chris O’Brien, however, got off with a one-year probation and a $1,000 fine, even though he admitted in a statement, “Just before [the game started], I learned that there were high school amateurs on the Milwaukee team. Now I know the mistake I made was in not canceling the game right then. But there were several hundred people out there to see the game. Things were moving fast. I didn’t sit down and think it out carefully.”

That win — plus another over the Hammond Pros, who hadn’t played a league game in more than a month — left the Cardinals with an 11-2-1 mark to Pottsville’s 10-2. A more suspect 11-2-1 team the NFL has never seen. No fewer than eight of the Cards’ games were against clubs that finished with one or no wins. Their opponents had a combined record of 46-70-13. Oh, and did I mention they had only one road game — against the cross-town Bears?

Granted, the Maroons enjoyed some scheduling advantages, too. Six of their wins were over teams that had played the day before (and presumably had been softened up). Their opponents, though, had a combined record of 71-66-9 — and they did crush the Cardinals 21-7 in Chicago.

O’Brien, to his credit, refused the championship when the league tried to award it to him, but it was a moot point. Pottsville had been banished — it was reinstated the following year — and the Cardinals had the best record of the remaining teams. Amazingly, the Cards’ victory over Milwaukee, the club with the four high schoolers, remains on the books, even though Carr said it would be stricken. Without that win, their record would be the same as the Maroons’, 10-2 (ties didn’t count).

Was Carr within his rights to kick Pottsville out of the NFL (temporarily)? Absolutely. But was his action just? That’s a question the league must wrestle with. And it doesn’t make it any easier that Carr is a beloved figure in pro football history, renowned for his fairness and leadership. “Many times at league meetings, we would recess late Saturday night in turmoil and on the verge of permanent dissolution,” March wrote in Pro Football. “The next morning, he would lead the boys of his religion to Mass, and they would return in perfect harmony.”

In this case, however, the case of the 1925 Pottsville Maroons, ol’ Joe might have blown one.

From The Washington Times, May 29, 2003

Sources: The Pro Football Chronicle, pro-football-reference.com.1925 Maroons

“The greatest O-line in NFL history”?

Because he’s too young to know better, La’el Collins got a little carried away at his first Dallas Cowboys press conference. He was ostensibly there to breathe a 305-pound sigh of relief after signing a 3-year, $1.65 million contract to join Jerry Jones’ ranch hands. After all, he’d projected as a first-round draft pick, but teams had passed on him because of concerns he might be a suspect in the murder of his ex-girlfriend.

Now that was behind him, and Collins was anxious to line up alongside tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and guard Zack Martin, all Pro Bowlers. “This is going to be the greatest offensive line in NFL history,” the people-moving guard said. “Mark my words.”

Consider them marked, La’el — marked and mocked.

Hey, I’m all for rookie enthusiasm, but it’s a little early to be calling this Cowboys line the “greatest” anything, even the greatest in franchise history. Rick Gosselin did a nice job of pointing that out in a column last week. Gosselin also listed his Top 4 Offensive Lines of all time, and I can’t argue with any of his selections. “The 1962 Green Bay Packers, 1972 Miami Dolphins, 1973 Oakland Raiders and 1983 Washington Redskins all await [Collins and Co.’s] challenge,” he wrote.

I’d make it a fivesome, though, and add arguably the greatest O-line of all: the 1940 Bears.

Yeah, yeah, I know: 1940 is a long time ago. But four players from that line are in the Hall of Fame — left tackle Joe Stydahar, guards Danny Fortmann and George Musso and center Bulldog Turner. And the fifth, right tackle Lee Artoe, might be in Canton, too, if he hadn’t jumped to the rival All-America Conference after the war. Several teammates I talked to said Artoe was better than Stydahar (who, besides his playing feats, won a title as the coach of the ’51 Rams).

The '40 Bears line from L to R: Artoe, Musso, Turner, Fortmann and Stydahar.

The ’40 Bears line from L to R: Artoe, Musso, Turner, Fortmann and Stydahar.

The ’40 Bears are most remembered for their revolutionary T formation — the first modern offense — and, of course, for their 73-0 obliteration of the Redskins in the championship game. They also led the NFL in rushing yards that season (165.3 per game) and, when the T got rolling, averaged 50.3 points in their last three games, a ridiculous total for that era.

Granted, we’re talking about the single platoon days. (Translation: These guys aren’t in Canton just for their blocking. They played defense, too.) But they were, by any measure, a fabulous O-line — and a short-lived one, as it turned out. A year later Musso moved into a backup role, and the season after that the military summoned Stydahar and Artoe. Indeed, if the war hadn’t come along, the ’40s Bears likely would have won six or seven titles instead of “just” four — and would be thought of as the dynasty of all NFL dynasties.

Artoe and Turner, by the way, were rookies in 1940. (The others had been playing at least four years.) Lee once told me a funny story about that first season — specifically, about the apartment he rented with fellow rookie Ken Kavanaugh, a terrific receiver (and, after retiring, a longtime Giants assistant). It went like this:

“Ken and I had played in the College All-Star Game [in late August against the Packers, the previous year’s NFL champs]. Afterward we took the midnight train to Pittsburgh, where the Bears had a preseason game the next day. When we got back from that trip, the team just dropped us at Wrigley Field and turned us loose. Well, Ken and I didn’t know where the hell we were. So we walked a couple of blocks down the street, and there was this sign that said, ‘Chateau Hotel.’ It was a hotel of about 100 rooms. We went in, and they charged us $20 a month to live there — $10 each.

Chateau Hotel“We didn’t spend much time at the hotel. Halas kept you pretty busy. You woke up, had practice, had a little lunch, and in the afternoon you might get some time off or have some more practice. Then at night, starting at 7 o’clock, there’d be a chalk talk in the [Wrigley] field house. You’d watch movies of the previous game and stuff like that. After that, you’d go to bed.

“We’d come home at night, and the elevator was right close to the [hotel entrance]. So we’d just step in the elevator and go up to the second floor. This went on for about two or three months. [George] Halas never gave you a day off. You were so tired all the time, you couldn’t wait to hit the sack.

“We did go to functions occasionally, though, and at one of them we were talking to Wilfrid Smith [the Chicago Tribune sportswriter, who used to play in the NFL and still officiated games]. Wilfrid said, ‘Where are you living?’ and Ken and I said, ‘We’re over at the Chateau Hotel.’ And he started to laugh. “That’s one of the biggest whorehouses in Chicago!” he said. It was one of [Al] Capone’s old hotels. How were we to know? I mean, we lived there and everybody knew us, knew we played for the Bears, but we didn’t hang out in the lobby or anything. We did notice, though, that there were always a lot of girls around.”

Artoe, as I said, might have been the fifth member of the line to make the Hall if he’d stayed with the Bears. “He’d knock down anything that got in his way,” halfback Joe Maniaci said. ”He was rough. He was a 60-minute man. In my book, I’d say he was better than Stydahar. But he didn’t get the publicity Stydahar got. And when he went to the All-America Conference [and convinced several other Chicago players to go with him], everything he did was gone.”

It was an unusual collection of talent that Halas had assembled. Musso played without a helmet early in his career and got up to 300 pounds near the end, rare for those days. Fortmann went to medical school at the University of Chicago and later served as the Rams’ team doctor. Then there was Turner, “the smartest football player that ever lived,” according to Sid Luckman, the Bears’ legendary quarterback. “There was never a better all-around football player than Bulldog Turner.”

Another funny story:

“Bulldog snapped the ball back so hard that I [needed] major surgery on my wrist,” Luckman told me. “I used to give with the ball as best I could, but he put that ball in there like it was shot out of a cannon. Boom! The ball was gone, and he was gone.

“I pleaded with him. ‘Bulldog, please, I beg of you, don’t send that ball back so hard. I’ve had two operations. Could you slow it up a little bit?’ He tried to, but he couldn’t do it. It threw his timing off.

“So one time we’re at practice, and he was snapping that ball like he always did — boom, boom, boom! Finally, I knew what I had to do. I moved my hand away, and he snapped the ball right into his nuts. Oh, man! He was down on the ground for a while, but then he chased me for 25 minutes around that goddamn field. But from that time on, he didn’t snap the ball as hard.”

Now that was an offensive line, certainly as good — in its time — as any of Gosselin’s other nominees. Only the ’73 Raiders had as many Hall of Famers as the ’40 Bears (LT Art Shell, LG Gene Upshaw, C Jim Otto and RT Bob Brown). And let’s not forget, the ’62 Packers gave up 11 sacks against the Lions on Thanksgiving Day.

It’s interesting that all these O-lines come from 1983 or earlier — interesting, but understandable. For most of NFL history, being a great line has meant, first and foremost, being able to run the ball, being able to impose your will on a defense. But with all the rule changes favoring passing, the running game has been devalued. It still has a place, mind you, it’s just different now. Clubs don’t pound away at defensive fronts anymore; they run, much of the time, out of more advantageous spread formations. The ability of a line to protect the quarterback has become as important as its ability to wedge block.

The ’40 Bears and the other famed lines ran the ball more than they threw it. A lot more. Not so with last year’s Cowboys (though they did have more rushes than passes). So if Collins’ bold prediction comes true, if the Dallas line does go on fame and fortune, it figures to be an updated version of A Line for the Ages, a new species. The thing is, teams have to worry about free agency now. Can Jones keep this group together long enough for it to reach those heights?

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Will the addition of guard La'el Collins take the Cowboys' O-line from very good to great?

Will the addition of guard La’el Collins take the Cowboys’ O-line from very good to great?

The Deflategate disaster

Is it possible to talk about Deflategate and leave emotion — which runs high on both sides — on the inactive list? Let’s try.

As you may have noticed, a large faction of NFL Nation has been doing backflips since the league announced its ruling, which suspends Tom Brady for four games, fines the Patriots $1 million and strips them of first- and fourth-round draft picks next year. What Roger Goodell did is kind of like what Sheriff Bullock did to George Hearst, the mining mogul, in Deadwood. The commissioner didn’t just throw Brady in jail, he took him there by the ear.

Sheriff Bullock escorts George Hearst to the hoosegow in "Deadwood."

Sheriff Bullock escorts George Hearst to the hoosegow in “Deadwood.”

It isn’t hard to understand the lust for Patriots blood that rages in the other 31 NFL cities. New England hasn’t just owned the league the last 14 seasons, winning four Super Bowls, it’s done it, at times, very annoyingly. Pro football has always been a few-holds-barred enterprise, but the Pats seem to glory in testing boundaries and flouting rules — whether it’s videotaping defensive signals, fooling with the air pressure in balls or some other bit of only-whispered-about subterfuge.

I mean, we get it, fellas, we really do. For Bill Belichick, son of a longtime Navy coach, football is Total War (minus the bullets, the drones, the IEDs, the fatalities . . . did I leave anything out?). Or to put it another way: Nobody worried about whether Grant had too many men on the field at Vicksburg.

The lengths the Patriots have gone to in their pursuit of victory have diminished their considerable accomplishments. They’re on one of the great runs in NFL history, but they’ve left fans wondering — with some justification — how much of their success is due to their willingness to step over the line, to operate in the Gray Area.

Of course, pro football has always had its villains. In the early years, no one had anything on the Bears’ George Halas in the ruthlessness department. Later on, Al Davis’ Raiders were the team people loved to hate. Belichick’s Patriots are merely the latest in the line, and probably not the worst. You could get away with so much more in the days before saturation media coverage and omnipresent security cameras. Heck, the home team used to pay the officials, and some clubs played a lot more home games than others.

Nevertheless, this latest Patriots scandal seems far more overinflated than the balls were underinflated. It broke at the most visible time of the season, in the run-up to the Super Bowl, and it raged pretty much out of control until Tuesday, when Goodell meted out his punishment. The NFL tried, feebly, to contain it, but the rumors, leaks and innuendo flew — and kept on flying — until the Wells Report was finally released 108 days later. It was yet another reminder that the most powerful league on the planet seems to have forgotten how to manage crises.

But let’s move on. One of the problems with this scandal is that folks can’t agree on whether Brady was guilty of a felony, a misdemeanor or an even lesser offense — like jaywalking — for his assumed role in this circus. Maybe the gravity (or lack thereof) of the situation will become clearer if we take a trip back in time. For starters, underinflated footballs have never been much of an issue in the NFL before now. Fascinating, don’t you think? A search of various newspaper archives the other day turned up almost nothing — since 1960, at least.

There was one story, in 1973, about the Steelers accusing the Raiders of “dirty tricks.” (And this was after a 17-9 win!) They “complained that the Raiders had smeared their uniforms with a greasy substance, had underinflated the footballs and had written obscenities on one of them,” The Associated Press reported. “There were also complaints that the Oakland Coliseum clock was not operated properly.”

Several days later — days, mind you, not months — the NFL handed down its verdict: not guilty.

“As for the deflated ball,” league publicist Don Weiss said, “all were checked, as prescribed by rule, by the officials prior to the game” and had the required 12 ½-to-13 ½ pounds of pressure. “Balls were changed frequently because of the rainy, wet weather,” he added. “When [Pittsburgh center] Ray Mansfield told the umpire, Tom Hensley, he felt one ball was under-inflated, Hensley honored his request automatically, just as he’d honor any other request, and replaced the ball.

“No official saw any ball with anything written on it, nor was it brought to their attention.”

And that was that. You get the impression the NFL — in those days, at least — just refused to deal with such Mickey Mouse accusations. There was no grand inquisition, no 243-page, multimillion-dollar report. A few phone calls were made, and the matter was dispensed with. The last thing the league wanted was to have a charge like that hanging in the air for the rest of the season. It simply wasn’t important enough. Football air pressure? Good lord.

If the Colts had bitched about the Patriots to Bert Bell, the commissioner in the ’40s and ’50s, my guess is that he would have rolled his eyes and said, “Do you guys really want to go down this road? First of all, you just got beat 45-7. Whatever happened with those footballs, it’s not the reason you lost the game. But beyond that, we’re talking about the air in the balls. How many things are less significant, in the grand scheme of things, than the air in the balls?

“Why do you think the rule reads ‘12 ½ to 13 ½ pounds’? Because there’s no magic number. There’s just a range we’d like to see teams adhere to, more or less. The rulebook, you’ll notice, doesn’t say you need to gain 8 to 10 yards for a first down. It doesn’t say you should kick off from the 40- to 42-yard line. But it does say the ball should be inflated to 12 ½ to 13 ½ pounds, because there’s some flexibility there. Let’s not get all bent of shape because the pressure might be a touch low or a touch high. We’ve got so many bigger fish to fry than that.

“Besides, this is football. If you piss and moan about something trivial like this, you may live to regret it. I think back to my own days as a coach and owner. If another team had raised a fuss about my quarterback throwing deflated footballs, I would have found a way to get even, and it might not have been pretty.”

In late January, when Deflategate became a cause célèbre, I wrote a post about Redskins legend Sammy Baugh telling the clubhouse man to underinflate balls — to 11 ½ pounds — because they “felt better to me.” Nobody, apparently, noticed or gave it a second thought. It’s interesting, too, that these slightly deflated balls didn’t hurt Baugh’s punting any. For a long time, in fact, he had the highest career average in history: 45.1 yards.

“Bootleg footballs” they were called. In the first few decades, especially — when the ball was fatter and harder to pass — clubs were known to Get Creative with the “wind-jammed pig rind” (Paul Gallico’s classic term). In a pro game between Canton and Massillon in 1905, 15 years before the NFL was born, the Tigers supplied a ball that was “the kind you would use in high school,” Dr. Harry March, the Giants’ first general manger, wrote in Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs. “It weighed about 10 ounces instead of the 16 ounces now required in all regular games, either amateur or professional. It was the kind of ball one could use in a kindergarten, as it would not hurt a male infant if kicked in his face. . . .

“[Canton Coach Blondy] Wallace protested . . . but was told that the contract put the selection of the ball up to the home team, and the one on hand was the one which would be played with that day. If he did not want to accept it, he could take his marbles and minions and go back to Canton. Naturally, that was the ball played with that afternoon. The game was a Massillon victory. They had been practicing weeks before with this featherweight ovoid and could handle it like magicians. The superiority of the Canton kickers was wiped out by this one bit of strategy.”

Bootleg footballs graphicThis sort of behavior was finally addressed by the college football Rules Committee – whose lead the NFL usually followed – in 1929. The year before, according to The New York Times, “reports began to come in that strangely shaped balls had been observed in play – balls with ‘snouts ideally adapted to gripping for forward passing’ – and that dealers were selling ‘either passing balls or kicking balls’ at the option of the buyer.

Reports also were received of overinflation of the football, the oval in some instances being blown up to 50 pounds of pressure, or more than three times the correct poundage, with a consequence that booting the ball felt like kicking a radiator or a hat with a brick in it. A punter capable of getting 40 yards with the genuine article thus could get no more than 27 or 28 yards with the rock-like counterfeit.

Blowing up the ball by guesswork at the corner garage, [committee chairman Edward K. Hall] said, naturally caused wide variation in the amount of inflation, and this, as well as the strange case of the snouted ball, his committee has already undertaken to remedy.

Under the rules for 1929 the use of a new apparatus designed to measure a football in length and width, after the manner of the foot-size gauge in shoe stores, will become compulsory. The referee before the game will slip the ball into this box-like contrivance and determine in an instant when a football is not a football within the meaning of the committee.

After that, you heard hardly a peep about footballs not meeting specifications. As long as the balls were, well, in the ballpark size-wise, everything was copacetic. And remember, for decades the home team furnished the balls — and inflated them to suit their own quarterback, not the visitors’. Baugh told me the Steelers liked to use a ball made by Goldsmith that had “10 laces instead of eight, and it was just fatter than everything. . . . You could throw it, but it was a different kind of ball.”

And now, all these years later, we have one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time getting suspended for a quarter of the season for the Deflategate fiasco. It just doesn’t seem possible. For this, Tom Brady is going to be branded with a scarlet D?

But then, these are different times from the ’20s and ’70s, more judgmental in some respects. (Or maybe it’s just that social media can turn any molehill into a mountain in the space of 140 characters.) We also, let’s not forget, have a commissioner who’d been under fire for his laxness in dealing with disciplinary cases — and who may very well have overreacted to Deflategate to make up for his initial underreaction to Ray Rice’s Frazieresque left hook.

Those who rooted for Goodell to make an example of Brady and his “outlaw” team love to talk about The Integrity of the Game. Sorry, everybody, but that horse left the barn long ago — if, indeed, it was ever in the barn. Respect for the rules in the NFL has always been grudging. Coaches and players are forever trying to bend them, twist them and circumvent them in ways totally contrary to the spirit of said rules.

That’s sports for you. Find a loophole, create a (temporary) edge. Some call it cheating, others gamesmanship. In truth, it’s probably a little of both, but the point is: It’s engrained — and you’re dreaming if you think much can be done about it.

The question then becomes: What “crimes” are you going to punish? Or, more to the point, are you going to punish a quarterback for conspiring to shrink the size of the ball, almost imperceptibly, so he feels more confident throwing it? I say “feels more confident throwing it” because it’s not certain Brady enjoyed any real competitive advantage. As Peter King pointed out the other day, there’s little difference in the last nine seasons between Tom’s passer rating in home games (100.2) vs. road games (99.7). And in road games, obviously, he doesn’t have the Patriots’ ballboys with him.

Are deflated footballs Tom Brady's garter belt?

Are Tom Brady’s deflated footballs like Nuke LaLoosh’s garter belt?

It may well be that Brady prefers a softer ball because he’s always thrown a softer ball, all the way back to his days at Michigan. In other words, the effect might be more psychological than measurable — like Nuke LaLoosh pitching better in Bull Durham when he wears a garter belt. Fully inflated balls certainly didn’t take away from Tom’s performance in the second half of the AFC championship game (12 of 14 for 131 yards and two touchdowns) . . . or in the Super Bowl (37 of 50 for 328 and four scores). In those six quarters he had a rating of 114.

Here’s what defies logic: The NFL has spent the last 80-odd years catering to quarterbacks by (a.) slimming down the ball (most recently in 1988), (b.) adjusting the rules to open up the passing game and (c.) making it easier, generally, to play the position (see: intentional grounding). It’s also getting harder and harder to hit the passer without drawing a flag. He’s got a “strike zone” these days the size of Eddie Gaedel’s.

In 2006 Brady and Peyton Manning mobilized quarterbacks and convinced the league to let them decide which balls would be used in games. This enabled them to practice with the balls during the week and have them prepared to their individual liking — rougher, smoother, more inflated, less inflated, etc. As a result, passing stats have exploded, scoring is at record highs and profits, naturally, keep going up and up.

After all this coddling of quarterbacks, the NFL is putting its foot down nowNow it’s saying, “This is going too far. Ball pressure can’t fall below 12 ½ pounds”?

Why on earth not? Does football cease being football under those conditions? Does the ball become so squeezable that fumbles, an increasingly endangered species, become extinct? (By the way, it’s not like any of this impacts the kicking game, because kickers are now required to use straight-from-the-factory K balls — a move brought about by widespread doctoring of the ball.

Which reminds me: Does anybody recall a kicker being suspended for four games, or any games, for sticking a ball in a microwave to “get it ready”? No? Wanna know why? Because once upon a time, the NFL had a sense of proportion. When an issue like this came up, it didn’t launch a four-month, multimillion-dollar investigation. It merely said, “We have to provide more supervision. Clearly, teams can’t be left to their own devices.” And the issue went away.

This whole Brady business is the silliest of stands for the league to take. It shouldn’t matter if the Patriots quarterback is partial to a slightly underinflated ball, just as it shouldn’t matter if Aaron Rodgers likes ’em overinflated. If it doesn’t change the game in some undesirable way, why would anyone make a big deal of it.

Unless, that is, he had an agenda, one that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with “protecting The Shield” . . . or whatever Goodell’s objective is.Deflated football

Lester Hayes’ incomparable 1980

We’re coming up on the 35th anniversary of one of the greatest seasons ever by an NFL player. Was it as great as Eric Dickerson’s 2,105 rushing yards in 1984, Peyton Manning’s 55 touchdown passes in 2013 or J.J. Watt’s both-sides-of-the-ball ridiculousness last year? Well, it’s hard to compare one position to another, but put it this way: Nobody has come close to doing what Raiders cornerback Lester Hayes did in 1980 — not in the modern era, at least. And given the gap that exists between Hayes and The Rest, it’s possible nobody ever will.

Lester’s performance that season was truly off the charts — so far off that his record might be resistant to rule changes, a longer schedule and anything else that tends to make the past disappear. In 20 games that season, including the playoffs, he intercepted 18 passes . . . and had another four picks wiped out by penalties. It almost doesn’t seem possible.

And this didn’t happen just any old year, I’ll remind you. It happened in a year the Raiders won the Super Bowl (to just about everyone’s surprise). For his efforts Hayes won The Associated Press’ Defensive Player of the Year award, an honor much more likely to go to a lineman or linebacker than a DB.

Let me lay out the numbers for you, then I’ll get into the season itself. Hayes had a league-leading 13 interceptions in the regular season — one off Night Train Lane’s mark — and another five in Oakland’s four playoff games. His total of 18 is five more than anyone else has had since 1960. Five. (Before that, the seasons and playoffs were so much shorter that nobody really had a chance to pick off 18 passes.)

Here’s Hayes’ closest competition:

MOST INTERCEPTIONS IN A SEASON SINCE 1960 (PLAYOFFS INCLUDED)

Year Player, Team G RS PS Total
1980 Lester Hayes, Raiders* 20 13 5 18
1969 Emmitt Thomas, Chiefs* (AFL) 17   9 4 13
1981 Everson Walls, Cowboys 18 11 2 13
1963 Fred Glick, Oilers (AFL) 14 12 DNA 12
1964 Paul Krause, Redskins 14 12 DNA 12
1964 Dainard Paulson, Jets (AFL) 14 12 DNA 12
1974 Emmitt Thomas, Chiefs 14 12 DNA 12
1987 Barry Wilburn, Redskins* 15   9 3 12
1976 Monte Jackson, Rams 16 10 2 12
1975 Mel Blount, Steelers* 17 11 1 12
1979 Mike Reinfeldt, Oilers 19 12 0 12
2006 Asante Samuel, Patriots 19 10 2 12
2007 Antonio Cromartie, Chargers 19 10 2 12

*won title

Yes, Hayes played in more games than the other defensive backs, and yes, some of them — the DNA (Does Not Apply) guys — didn’t even make the playoffs. But them’s the breaks. Besides, his interceptions per game of 0.9 is the highest of the bunch. (Next: Glick, Krause, Paulson and Thomas ’74 at 0.86).

It’s worth noting, too, that the league-wide interception rate in 1980 was 4.6 percent. Last year it was 2.5 — and if the Competition Committee continues to favor the offense, it no doubt will decline even further. That’s just going to make it harder to pile up 18 picks in a season. (Another way to look at it: In 1980 there were 627 INTs in 13,705 pass attempts. In 2014 there were 450 in 17,879 — 177 fewer in 4,174 more attempts.)

Now that the cold, hard data has been dispensed with, why don’t we take Hayes’ historic season interception by interception? Lester was quite a character, even by the Raiders’ oddball standards — the kind of player Twitter was made for. (Or maybe not. There was no telling, after all, what might come out of his mouth.)

Hayes considered himself, for instance, more than just an all-pro corner. In his mind, he was “the only true Jedi in the National Football League” (which was only to be expected, I suppose, of a player who claimed to have seen The Empire Strikes Back 300 times).

To Lester, money was “deceased presidents,” as in: “If the president of Australia doubled my salary and I was not under contract to the Raiders, I’d be on the first flight across the International Dateline. . . . It’s [all about] the deceased presidents, baby. In 1995, when the cost of bread is $5 per loaf, how is one to procure his loaf of bread?”

At Texas A&M, where he’d played linebacker, they called him “Judge.” That, he explained, stemmed from “a statement I made before we played Texas. I said our defense was going to hold court on Earl Campbell. I sentenced him to 2 yards on 20 carries.” (Campbell finished with 20 on 18.)

In 1980 Hayes was judge, jury and executioner as far as NFL quarterbacks were concerned. If they threw a ball anywhere near him, it was likely to wind up in his stickum-coated mitts (in the days when the Crazy Glue-like stuff was legal). How his season went:

● Week 1 (beat Chiefs, 27-14): Intercepted a Steve Fuller pass, setting up a field goal that made it 24-7 in the fourth quarter.

● Week 2 (lost to Chargers in overtime, 30-24): Had one of the Raiders’ five INTs against Dan Fouts.

● Week 3 (beat Redskins, 24-21): In the fourth quarter, with Washington at the Oakland 21, he picked off Joe Theismann’s throw to halt a drive.

● Week 4 (lost to Bills, 24-7): Returned an interception 48 yards for a touchdown, the Raiders’ only score. Victim: Joe Ferguson.

● Week 8 (beat Seahawks, 33-14): Had two INTs, both off Jim Zorn. The first led to a TD, the second to a field goal.

● Week 9 (beat Dolphins, 16-10): From the AP account: “Lester Hayes had one interception, and would have had another — on which he rambled 95 yards for an apparent TD — had the play not been called back by an Oakland offside penalty.” QB: Uncertain (either David Woodley or Don Strock).

● Week 10 (beat Bengals, 28-17): A one-INT day could have been a three-INT day if two more picks hadn’t been nullified by offside penalties. The one he did get came on the final play of the first half when Jack Thompson threw up a Hail Mary.

● Week 11 (beat Seahawks, 19-17): With 4:20 left, he intercepted a Zorn pass and returned it 19 yards to the Oakland 39. The Raiders then drove to the Seattle 10, where Chris Bahr booted a game-winning 28-yard field goal.

● Week 12 (lost to Eagles in Super Bowl preview, 10-7): Picked off a Ron Jaworski pass at some point, but the newspaper stories don’t say when. (Unfortunately, the league’s gamebook archives only go back to 1981, which is why I have to rely on newspapers.)

● Week 13 (beat Broncos, 9-3): Another end-of-the-first-half-Hail-Mary job, this time at the expense of Craig Morton.

● Week 15 (beat Broncos, 24-21): Had a second-quarter INT. (Matt Robinson threw it.) It was followed by a field goal that put Oakland ahead to stay, 10-7.

● Week 16 (beat Giants, 33-17): The New York Times: “Late in the second quarter, with the Giants trailing by two touchdowns, [Scott] Brunner overthrew a pass to [running back Billy] Taylor. It was intercepted by Lester Hayes, his 13th steal of the season, and returned 50 yards” — helping to put another three points on the board.

● Playoff Game 1 (beat Oilers, 27-7): Thanks, once again, to the wonders of YouTube, I was able to find video of all five of Hayes’ postseason picks. This is the first — in the end zone in the third quarter, when Oakland had a tenuous 10-7 lead.

And this is the second, near the end, with Oilers quarterback Ken Stabler — Lester’s former Raiders teammate — facing a third-and-18 at the Houston 2:

Touchdown — Hayes’ second of the season. He also had two sacks that day. Just so you know: No defensive back has had a two-interception/two-sack game since the sack became an official statistic in 1982. Three linebackers have accomplished the feat, though – the Bengals’ James Francis (1992), the Dolphins’ Robert Jones (1998) and the Steelers’ Joey Porter (2002). That’s the kind of year it was for Lester.

● Playoff Game 2 (beat Browns, 14-12): Suckered Brian Sipe into two more INTs. Pick No. 1 came on a third-and-10 play from the Cleveland 48 midway through the first quarter:

Pick No. 2 was yet another a Hail Mary situation – just before halftime:

NBC analyst John Brodie made a classic comment during the replay: “A lot of fellas would be content to just bat it down. Not Lester. Put another skin on the wall.”

Exactly. Anything Hayes could get his hands on, he was going to catch. In that instance he was trying to keep the ball away from a 6-foot-4 former college basketball player (wideout Dave Logan), so who can blame him?

Amazingly — given all his interceptions — Lester didn’t have the most memorable INT in that game. The Raiders’ strong safety, Mike Davis, did, picking off a Brian Sipe pass in the end zone in the final minute to preserve the victory. The Browns were at the Oakland 13, in chip-shot field goal range, when Sipe tried to hit tight end Ozzie Newsome . . . and connected with Davis instead:

(The game was played in bitter cold, and Cleveland had already missed an extra point and two field goals. Coach Sam Rutigliano didn’t have a whole lot of confidence in kicker Don Cockroft at that stage.)Headline before AFC title game JJ Duel

● Playoff Game 3 (beat Chargers, 34-27): Much of the talk before the AFC title game was about the matchup between Hayes and John Jefferson — all-pro corner vs. all-pro receiver. And sure enough, in the early going at the Oakland 14, Fouts wanted to go to Jefferson, who had lined up in the right slot. But JJ slipped, which resulted in Lester’s 18th and last interception of the season:

Hayes never had another year like 1980. Nobody has another year like that. In fact, he never had more than four interceptions in any of his final six seasons, though he continued to make Pro Bowls. Whether this had anything to do with the banning of stickum in ’81 is an open question. He used it, uh, liberally (as the photo at the bottom shows).

Still, he had some nice moments after that, including this one during the Raiders’ 1983 playoff run:

Before the Super Bowl against the Redskins, he said (in typical Lesterese): “As long as I procure those 72,000 deceased presidents on my birthday [Jan. 22 — the date of the game], that’s all I care about. It’s my destiny to spend my birthday intercepting three passes and scoring three touchdowns, a feat no other defensive back has ever done. I will do a 360-degree reverse slam dunk [over the crossbar] after each TD. It’s inevitable.”

Alas, he fell three interceptions, three touchdowns and three 360-degree reverse slam dunks short, but no matter. The Raiders won anyway, 38-9. Besides, he’ll always have 1980. And when I say “always,” I’m pretty sure I mean always. Who’s ever going to have more 18 interceptions in a season?

Lester Hayes, his right hand covered with goo (stickum), reaches for a towel.

Lester Hayes, his right hand covered with goo (stickum), reaches for a towel.

Super Bowl IV lives!

With the draft in the books and the Slow Season officially upon us, let’s have a little fun today and revisit one of the more underappreciated games in pro football history: Super Bowl IV — the last between those sworn enemies, the NFL and AFL, before they merged into the colossus that bestrides the sports world.

Happily, the Chiefs’ 23-7 win over the Vikings can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube. It’s the Canadian (CBC) telecast (as is clear from the commercials, one of which stars hockey legend Bobby Orr). Warning: There’s no telling how long the video will be available, so try to watch it before the Copyright Police springs into action. You won’t be disappointed.

We’ll get to The Game Itself in a few moments. But first, allow me to pay homage to the Chiefs defense, that group of Eleven Angry Men who backboned their run to the Super Bowl — and smothered the Vikes therein. When great defenses are discussed, you don’t always hear much about the ’69 Chiefs, and that’s a shame. After all, five members of the unit have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, and a sixth, free safety Johnny Robinson, should probably be in Canton, too. (He was a finalist six straight years in the ’80s but, for reasons known only to the selection committee, wasn’t able to break through. Maybe he’ll make it someday as a veterans candidate.)

Anyway, the defense was never better than it was that year. In 17 games — 14 regular season, three postseason — it allowed just 18 touchdowns (eight rushing, 10 passing) and a mere 11.6 points a game. In the playoffs, the Kansas City ‘D’ was even more amazing, holding the Jets (quarterbacked by Hall of Famer Joe Namath), Raiders (QB’d by Daryle Lamonica, who led the AFL with 34 TD passes) and Vikings (QB’d by Pro Bowler Joe Kapp) to a total of 20 points (two TDs, two field goals).

Check out these numbers: Against the Chiefs, those three estimable quarterbacks had a combined passer rating of 21 (113 attempts, 48 completions, 42.5 percent completion rate, 0 touchdowns, 10 interceptions). Granted, it was a different game then, one in which the defense had more of a fighting chance, but the Kansas City ‘D’ was phenomenal by any standard.

Consider: Opposing passers had a postseason rating of 31 against the 2000 Ravens, arguably the best defense in the last 25 years (at least). For the ’85 Bears, the rating was 39.2. For the ’86 Giants, it was 48.5. That should give you some idea of how otherworldly the ’69 Chiefs were.

Then again, maybe I should just introduce you to these guys individually. That’ll give you an even better idea of how loaded the ’69 Chiefs were.

● LE Jerry Mays (6-4/252, 30 years old) — Seven Pro Bowls (or AFL All-Star Games, as the case may be). Played 10 seasons.

● LT Curley Culp (6-2/265, 23) — Hall of Famer. Six Pro Bowls. Former NCAA heavyweight wrestling champ (read: knew leverage like nobody’s business). The Broncos drafted him in the second round in 1968, tried unsuccessfully to turn him into an offensive guard, then traded him to the Chiefs for a ’69 No. 4 (OG Mike Schnitker). How’s that for a deal? Played 14 seasons.

● RT Buck Buchanan (6-7/270, 29) — Hall of Famer. Eight Pro Bowls. An absolute monster. Played 13 seasons.

● RE Aaron Brown (6-5/255, 26) — Second team all-AFL by The Sporting News in 1969, first team all-AFC by The Associated Press in ’70 and ’71. Wonderfully athletic, disruptive pass rusher who would have had an even better career if it hadn’t been for injuries. Played eight seasons.

● LLB Bobby Bell (6-3/228, 29) — Hall of Famer. Nine Pro Bowls. Simply one of the best players in pro football in that period. Returned six of his 26 interceptions for touchdowns, tying him for most by any modern linebacker. Played 12 seasons.

● MLB Willie Lanier (6-1/245, 24) — Hall of Famer. Eight Pro Bowls. Was far from just a run-stopper, as his 27 picks (one more than Bell) attest. Played 11 seasons.

● RLB Jim Lynch (6-1/235, 24) — One Pro Bowl. Consensus second team all-AFL in 1968 and ’69. Played 11 seasons.

● LCB Jim Marsalis (5-11/194, 24) — Two Pro Bowls. Went to the AFL All-Star Game that year as a rookie and was all-pro in 1970. Played eight seasons.

● RCB Emmitt Thomas (6-2/192, 26) — Hall of Famer. Five Pro Bowls. Led the AFL with nine interceptions in 1969 and added four more in the postseason — 13 in 17 games. Only two players have had more than four INTs in a single playoff year. (The Houston Oilers’ Vernon Perry in ’79 and the Raiders’ Lester Hayes in ’80 each had five.) Played 13 seasons.

● SS Jim Kearney (6-2/206, 26) — The only player on the unit who never made the Pro Bowl or the all-conference team. All Kearney ever did was run back four picks for touchdowns in 1972, tying the NFL record (which still stands). Played 12 seasons.

● FS Johnny Robinson (6-1/205, 31) — Eight Pro Bowls. Tied for the AFL lead in 1966 with 10 interceptions and led the NFL in ’70 with the same number. Was a nice offensive player his first two years, racking up over 1,000 yards from scrimmage in ’60 (458 rushing, 611 receiving), then switched to defense and had 57 INTs over the next decade. Played 12 seasons. Again, I ask: Why isn’t this man in the Hall?

One more argument for Robinson: Only four defensive backs have had more than 57 interceptions in a 10-year period. Three are in Canton (Em Tunnell, 73; Paul Krause, 62; Night Train Lane, 58), and the other (Darren Sharper, 58) seemed like a semi-lock for Canton, too, until he was convicted of rape in March. Johnny also had 16 games in which he had two-or-more picks, as many as anybody since 1960. (Krause also had 16 multiple-pick games. No one else has had more than 12.)

To review: Five Hall of Famers (one more than the Steel Curtain Steelers, one less than the five-championships-in-seven-seasons Packers). Nine players who went to the Pro Bowl, another who was twice voted all-AFC and another who, though he didn’t earn any individual honors, has shared an NFL record for 43 years (and may well share it for another 43). And finally, tremendous longevity — careers of 10, 14, 13, 8, 12, 11, 11, 8, 13, 12 and 12 seasons (average: 11.3).

Imagine assembling a defense like that today. On second thought, don’t bother. Given the salary cap, the movement brought about by free agency and the general dilution of the product (six more franchises), it would be nigh impossible. That’s the defense the Chiefs threw at you.

Yeah, they haven’t been back to the Super Bowl since, while the Vikings played in three more in the next seven seasons (and suffered three more crushing losses). But I’ll always believe that, at that point in time, Kansas City was playing defense about as well as it has ever been played. I mean, there were no Gus Frerottes, no Jay Schroeders, no Dieter Brocks on their dance card. They were going against the iron — and shutting them down.

Something else to ponder: Eight of K.C.’s Magnificent Eleven were black (Mays, Lynch and Robinson being the exceptions). The Chiefs, from the beginning, were an equal-opportunity organization. All owner Lamar Hunt and coach Hank Stram cared about was winning. The Vikings defense, by contrast, had four blacks. Don’t get me wrong, the Minnesota ‘D’ — the vaunted Purple People Eaters — was outstanding. I’m just sayin’.

Remember, when the AFL came into being, the Redskins still had an all-white roster and some other NFL teams, notably the Lions, didn’t have the greatest track record in terms of integration. It’s one of the biggest impacts the AFL had on pro football. It brought more blacks into the game.

At any rate, from front to back — and from side to side, for that matter — the ’69 Chiefs defense was one of the all-time terrors. If Buchanan didn’t get you, Bell would . . . or some other member of this illustrious group. Make no mistake: Super Bowl IV was no upset. The Vikings offense was overmatched. And Kapp and Co., I’ll just remind you, were pretty potent. Minnesota put up 50-plus points three times that season. (Of course, the week before K.C. held them to seven points in the AFL title game, the Raiders had dropped 56 on the Houston Oilers. As I said, the Chiefs could strangle the best attacks.)

OK, on to the game — Super Bowl IV at New Orleans’ Tulane Stadium. My thoughts:

● If you’re a pro football lover of a certain age, this final AFL-NFL championship game has a special place in your memory bank. The war between the established NFL and the try-anything AFL produced, for my money, the most entertaining decade in the game’s history. But rather than go off on a long tangent here, let me just say: To fully understand what I’m talking about, you had to be there. Pro football in that era was a weekly spectacular, and it emerged from those years as the No. 1 sport in the nation (to baseball’s continuing chagrin).

Apart from the nostalgia, though, the Chiefs-Vikings collision was the last time the Super Bowl was truly an Us-vs.-Them affair. Thereafter, no matter how delicious the matchup, it was Us vs. Us, which, let’s face it, takes something away from the game. No Super Bowl team these days is fighting for the honor of its conference — not the way the Chiefs (twice), Raiders and Jets fought for the credibility of the AFL in the ’60s. And when the worm turned at the end of the decade, it was, for many fans, like finding out the earth wasn’t flat or the sun didn’t revolve around the earth. Jets 16, Colts 7 was that cataclysmic.

● The Chiefs were such a cutting-edge team — a modern team. Never mind their dozen black starters, they also did a lot of pre-snap shifting on offense, often played one of their defensive tackles over the nose of the center (to the detriment of the Vikings’ undersized Mick Tinglehoff), had a lethal soccer-style kicker in Hall of Famer Jan Stenerud (when soccer-stylers were still in the minority) and even formed their offensive huddle unconventionally (with two lines facing quarterback Len Dawson: larger creatures in back, smaller creatures up front).

Here’s Culp blowing by Tinglehoff (who’ll be enshrined in Canton in August) to stuff a running play:

Watching Kansas City play in those days was like visiting Tomorrowland. The Chiefs were nothing like the ultra-basic Packers clubs coached by Vince Lombardi earlier in the ’60s (who served as a model for the ’69 Vikings). For instance, the Chiefs might not have reached the Super Bowl if they hadn’t sprung star receiver Otis Taylor for big gains against the Jets and Raiders by using a funky formation — with Taylor in the slot between the guard and tackle. And they tricked the Vikes three times by running end-arounds with their other wideout, Frank Pitts (who they positioned, in each instance, as a tight end on the left side). The first went for 19 yards and set up a field goal:

Minnesota, on the other hand, just lined up and came at you. Unfortunately, it was hard to do that against a defense like Kansas City’s. Buchanan, Culp, Brown and Mays repeatedly collapsed the pocket, and it seemed like Kapp spent the entire afternoon throwing off his back foot.

● In the brief intro before kickoff, CBS analyst Pat Summerall said Vikings coach Bud Grant had told him during the week “that Kansas City is the type of team — a physical team, a hitting team — that Minnesota has had trouble with throughout the entire year.” The Chiefs’ aggressiveness was certainly evident in the Super Bowl. On consecutive plays in the Vikings’ second series, they absolutely crunched running backs Bill Brown and Dave Osborn when they swung out of the backfield to catch passes, holding them to a pair of 1-yard gains. How often do you see consecutive 1-yard completions in the middle of the field?

At the outset of the second quarter, Marsalis put the wood to receiver John Henderson, causing a fumble that Robinson recovered. K.C. kept right on knocking Minnesota’s socks off.

● It no doubt helped the Chiefs that they had Been There Before, even if their previous Super Bowl experience had been a humbling 35-10 loss to Green Bay. Sixteen Kansas City starters, including punter Jerrel Wilson, had played in SB I. For the Vikings, it was their first time on the Super Bowl stage. And frankly, it showed. From the very first snap, K.C. looked like the looser club.

Don’t forget, too, that while the NFL had been around far longer than the AFL, the Chiefs (born: 1960) were actually older than the Vikes (a 1961 expansion franchise). So this Super Bowl had a much different dynamic than its predecessors.

● Stenerud was a huge factor, booting three field goals — the first a 48-yarder, a Super Bowl record at the time — to stake Kansas City to a 9-0 lead. Fred Cox, Minnesota’s traditional kicker (read: he kicked with the front of his foot, the toes, rather than the instep), had only one attempt in the game, from 56 yards with the wind at his back, and came up eight yards short:

It’s one of the more fascinating subplots of Super Bowl IV: the old way of kicking vs. the new way. Stenerud, a former ski jumper from Norway who was undrafted out of Montana State, was more of a weapon than Cox because he had more range. And Fred was one of pro football’s best in ’69, booting 26 field goals and making 70.3 percent of his tries, both NFL highs. But he kicked only two field goals of 50 yards or longer in his 15-year career and had a success rate of just 36.5 percent from 40 to 49 yards. Stenerud booted 17 field goals of 50-plus yards and was successful 51.3 percent of the time from 40 to 49 yards.

Little wonder that by the end of the ’70s, the vast majority of NFL teams had soccer-stylers.

● Another comment Summerall made: “Kansas City is basically a man-to-man defense in the secondary. Minnesota is primarily a zone defensive team.” This goes back to the Chiefs’ aggressiveness. Their ‘D’ attacked you at every level. Thanks to Thomas’ close coverage, Gene Washington, the Vikings’ Pro Bowl receiver, had only one catch for nine yards — and it didn’t come until the last eight minutes, by which time K.C. was ahead 23-7.

● People always joked about Kapp’s not-so-tight spirals. Indeed, Summerall mentioned that Joe “does throw a ball that wobbles quite a bit.” But the Vikes’ QB really aired it out on a couple of occasions. On an incompletion to Washington late in the first half, the pass traveled 65 yards in the air. It might be the longest throw in Super Bowl history:

● Just before that bomb, Dawson drew Minnesota offside by shifting into the shotgun, which wasn’t seen much back then. He took the snap nine yards behind the line. Play-by-play man Jack Buck (correctly) said it “used to be called the Short Punt [formation].” Yet another example of the Chiefs’ against-the-grain mentality (not to mention a sound strategy against the Vikings’ fierce pass rush):

● Penalties could be so much more punitive in the ’60s. At the start of the second half, Kansas City had moved to its 41 when tackle Dave Hill was caught grabbing Carl Eller, Minnesota’s Pro Bowl defensive end, on a third-and-seven play. In those days, though, the walk-off for holding wasn’t 10 yards, it was 15 — from the spot of the foul, which in this case was seven yards deep in the backfield. So it ended up costing the Chiefs 22 yards and left them with a third-and-29. Ouch.

(Referee John McDonough didn’t announce who the penalty was on, however, because refs weren’t equipped with microphones yet. It was left to Summerall to divine who the guilty party was. Sometimes, Pat just had to make an educated guess. After the Vikings were flagged for a personal foul in the third quarter, he said it “might” have been on linebacker Wally Hilgenberg for giving Kansas City back Mike Garrett “a little shot as he tried to get by him” on a pass route.)

● It was a better balanced game in 1969 — better balanced between the run and the pass, better balanced between the offense and the defense. The run/pass split that season was fairly even — 51.6 percent rushing plays (for the two leagues combined), 48.4 percent passing plays. Last year, with Drew Brees and friends firing the ball all over the lot, it was 43.4/56.6. Maybe you’re OK with that. To me, it’s out of whack (not that we’ll ever go back in the other direction).

The rule changes in 1978 that legalized the use of hands in pass blocking and eliminated bump-and-run coverage — along with other tinkering by the Competition Committee — have turned pro football, increasingly, into a throwing contest. Of course, almost from the outset, the NFL has tried to distinguish itself from college football by giving the offense “a slight edge,” as longtime league president Joe Carr put it. “We are primarily interested in developing a spectacular scoring game,” he said in the ’30s. “We haven’t the pageantry that goes with the college games, hence as a substitute we must offer wide-open play, with frequent scoring.

Over the years, though, that “slight edge” has widened. And when you watch a game like Super Bowl IV, you’re reminded how much. There was simply more uncertainty when Dawson and Kapp went to the air, a larger margin of error. Sure, the defenses had something to do with that — both were terrific — but the rules were also fairer. It was nice, for a few hours, to see the game regain its equilibrium. As much fun as passing is, running the ball is elemental (and, I might add, keeps pro football in touch with its roots).

● On second and 18 from the Minnesota 27 near the end of the first half, the Chiefs ran a draw to Wendell Hayes, who picked up 13 yards. Summerall’s remark: “Excellent call by Dawson.” Oh, right. Quarterbacks were still calling their own plays. How quaint.

It was just another way the game was more balanced: Things weren’t totally dominated, as they are today, by micromanaging coaches. That’s why the TV cameras weren’t constantly focused on Stram and Grant — neither of whom, by the way, wore a headset (a fashion accessory that wasn’t yet in vogue). To a large extent, the players ran the show.

● But not always. The famed 65 Toss Power Trap, which Garrett scored on from the 5-yard line to make it 16-0, was sent in by Stram (via receiver Gloster Richardson). It was a gutsy call, inasmuch as it was third and goal, and was perfectly executed. Guard Mo Moorman came over from the right side to trap Alan Page, the Vikings’ Hall of Fame defensive tackle, and Garrett had a huge hole to run through:

What’s just as notable about the play, though, is that Garrett leaped into Taylor’s arms afterward. Self-celebration wasn’t that common in the ’60s, but you could tell from Garrett’s reaction that that touchdown was, to him, the clincher. Given the way the Kansas City ‘D’ was playing, the Vikings weren’t going to rally from 16 points down:

Needless to say, the Chiefs cheerleaders were excited:

● Every now and then, Page would flash, just to remind everybody he was the baddest defensive player on the planet. Once, Dawson had barely completed a handoff to Hayes before Page broke through and drilled him. The guy had linebacker-type quickness (which figures, I guess, since he was 6-4, 245 pounds):

Earlier, Page had dropped Robert Holmes for a 5-yard loss on a draw and, a short time later, tackled Garrett a yard behind the line. That said, Kansas City guard Ed Budde — with help from his linemates — kept Alan from going totally bonkers, and the Chiefs did everything they could to use his quickness against him by running a bunch of traps, draws and screens.

Page now sits on the Minnesota Supreme Court, so it was amusing to see him lose his temper — not once, but twice. The first time, after drawing an offside penalty, he began jawing at the officials. The aforementioned hit on Dawson soon followed. (Moral: Don’t get Alan mad.)

In the closing minutes, Page got riled again. You couldn’t blame him. The Vikings, 13-point favorites, were going down in flames, and Grant — this shocked me — wasn’t using any of his timeouts to stop the clock. The Chiefs weren’t inclined to Just Get It Over With, though, and, on the first play after the two-minute warning, a third-and-11, Dawson rolled right to pass.

Eller sacked him for a four-yard loss, but Page wasn’t satisfied with that. He dove into Lenny, well after the whistle, as the quarterback lay on the ground, resulting in a personal-foul penalty that enabled K.C. to keep possession:

It was fitting end to the last Us vs. Them Super Bowl, one final bit of animosity before the two leagues clasped hands. Both benches emptied, but not much happened aside from some generic jostling. Then the game resumed, the Chiefs killed the remaining time, Stram was hoisted on his players’ shoulders . . . and pro football was never the same.

● Postscript: Did you notice, near the end, Buck’s plug for The Ed Sullivan Show (which aired that night on CBS)? Among the guests, he said, were Tiny Tim and his new bride, Miss Vicky. (If the names aren’t familiar, Google them. It’ll give you a better feel for where we were as a country when the curtain came down on the AFL.)

In fact, why don’t we have Tim sing us off?

I have just one more thing to add: The Kansas City defense was no “tiptoe through the tulips.”

(And yes, that’s Goldie Hawn who hands him a bouquet of flowers before escorting him offstage.)

Before anonymous sources

NFL teams are so secretive now it’s a wonder they don’t use an Enigma machine to communicate with one another. We were reminded of this again in the run-up to the draft, when all sorts of trade scenarios were bandied about — many involving quarterback Marcus Mariota — and none came to pass. Only two of the first 32 picks changed hands, the fewest in the modern era.

Mike Mayock, the NFL Network’s main Draft Guy, is so spooked by Bill Belichick’s talent for disinformation that he was reluctant to guess Thursday night which player the Patriots would take at the bottom of the first round. (Host Rich Eisen shamed him into it, though, and Mayock, to his great surprise, correctly predicted Texas defensive tackle Malcom Brown.)

I raise this subject because, in the old days, the NFL was much more of an open book. And really, how much more fun would the offseason be if coaches and general managers didn’t dodge most questions as if they infringed on national security? Anyway, I came across a Pittsburgh Press story from 1940 that illustrates perfectly what I’m talking about. It ran just before the league meetings that year in April, and the candor of Steelers owner Art Rooney is stunning by today’s standards. Rooney names 10 players on six different clubs he’d be interested in trading for. Had he done that before this year’s league meetings, he might have been accused of tampering.

Here’s the (brief) story:Rooney talking trades 1940

The Steelers got only two of the 10 players Rooney mentioned — Giants tackle Ox Parry (for halfback Kay Eakin) and Rams halfback Merl Condit (for tailback Hugh McCullough). Condit was probably envisioned as a drawing card because he’d starred in college at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Tech.

Who doesn’t wish owners — and other decision makers — were as forthcoming nowadays as they were in the ’40s? Then we wouldn’t have as much Reporting By Rumor, as much Smoke Blowing passed off as reliable information. Better still, we wouldn’t have to watch a coach or GM’s nose grow almost every time he opens his mouth.